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JAPAN: Kingdom of Characters


Staring at the bright pink banner at the entrance of the exhibition, I knew that it was going to be the cutest exhibition I had ever been to! Stepping into JAPAN: Kingdom of Characters exhibition, I was greeted by the big-eyed, life-sized figure of Namisuke, the official mascot character for the Suginami ward of Tokyo. It sure made for a pleasant change from the usual deadpan stare of a security guard.


JAPAN: Kingdom of Characters is a touring exhibition by the Japan Foundation featuring over 70 exhibits of life-sized figures, graphics panels, photographs, figurines and videos. Travelling since September 2010, this colourful exhibition has traversed the globe to show in more than 40 cities, covering Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, UK, and others. The exhibition, which ran from 15 November 2013 to 12 December 2013 at Lim Hak Tai Gallery, gave us a better understanding of the cultural and historical background behind the Japanese love of characters as well as the future of characters in contemporary Japan.


It proved to be an eye-opening trip for me, as I read the boards on the walls depicting many famous Japanese characters according to year of production, enthralled. I never knew that some of the characters I grew up with had originated decades ago! Take Hello Kitty for example – the iconic expressionless white cat now recognized around the world was introduced in the 70s, the age of highly prosperous years for Japanese character culture. What distinguished Hello Kitty from many other characters that originated in manga (Japanese comics) or TV dramas was the fact that the character’s only telling feature was her name; her background information was introduced later. Having been introduced in about 110 countries, Hello Kitty can now be found on probably every possible type of product. I’m sure almost every girl had something with Hello Kitty printed on it at one point of her life!


Your inner otaku will be squealing with joy at this exhibition, as you lay your eyes on the many figures, graphics panels and figurines from various animes and mangas. You can also watch Japanese films, complete with headphones for a full experience. “Yawaraka Tank” was an adorably entertaining film of tanks that fell into the sea, with the characters having the typical “kawaii” nature of Japanese characters.

And once you’re done getting enlightened about the history of Japanese characters, you can see how it’s incorporated in the daily life of an average Japanese high-school girl. They’ve faithfully reproduced a bedroom, complete with dresser, bedroom slippers and a standee of said girl. One might find the amount of character merchandises rather overwhelming, somewhat like the room of a girl who was excessively infatuated with a character – but no – it’s the room of a typical student.


In fact, it is not only limited to students. Even the table of a working adult could have character goods cheerfully adorning it. You would be hard-pressed to find an adult in Singapore with Pokémon toys cluttering his table! Yet, culture in Japan is such that the boss wouldn’t even blink at the sight of them. Characters are truly a daily part of a Japanese person’s life, and it was with great dismay that I left the exhibition, knowing that Singapore has lots to catch up to before she can have such a strong sense of character culture.



Text and images by: Arynah Aminuddin

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